My weekly column (Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) looks at the current debate over the spectrum auction set for 2008. The first round of the consultation comments closed last month, generating nearly 50 industry submissions, yet surprisingly only four Canadians provided their views (follow up responses can be made until June 27th). By comparison, in the United States more than 250,000 people have written to the Federal Communications Commission to urge it to set conditions on a forthcoming spectrum auction that would make Internet access more open, affordable, and accessible.
Despite the lack of Canadian public awareness, the issue has an enormous impact on telecommunications since it plays a pivotal role in determining wireless competition. The three incumbent wireless providers (Bell, Telus, and Rogers) along with some business groups stand on one side, calling for an "open auction" that would involve minimal pre-conditions and see the available spectrum auctioned off to the highest bidders. These groups argue that the Canadian wireless market is already competitive and that the government should avoid setting aside spectrum for new providers.
Major cable companies (Shaw, Quebecor, Cogeco) and smaller telecom companies (MTS Allstream, Toronto Hydro Telecom) provide the alternate perspective. They are seeking a "set-aside" that would reserve spectrum for new entrants. These companies point to data that places Canada well below other developed countries on metrics such as the number of wireless subscribers, pricing, and the introduction of innovative services. They also note that Canadian spectrum auctions are not truly open, since foreign ownership restrictions exclude many potential bidders.
While the incumbents have been quick to characterize a spectrum set-aside as akin to a government subsidy, they fail to acknowledge that they were handed reserved spectrum to get off the ground.